BODY & SOUL
On the pull: why rowing is hot right now
Group sessions, superior fitness and cool tech are reviving rowing — in gyms and on the water.
June 27 2017, 12:01am,
Exercising on an indoor rowing machine engages more than 85 per cent of your muscles
How many times have you skirted the gym floor to avoid the item of cardio equipment we have all come to dread? For years, the indoor rowing machine was an object of loathing and fear. We disliked it not just because it was boring, but because it required more intense effort than any other machine. You can get away with taking it easy on a treadmill or indoor bike. There’s no such respite on a rower — you practically have to peel yourself out of that sadistic sliding seat. It’s precisely because it’s so ridiculously hard, however, that rowing is now drawing us in our droves.
Gym industry insiders report a mass movement from spinning to rowing. Bored with the bike, fitness types are embracing the new king of cardio, one that promises to burn up to 1,200 calories in 50 minutes, exceeding any other type of exercise except cross-country skiing, and that works the most muscles — calves, hamstrings, glutes, abs, quads, obliques, pecs, biceps, triceps, deltoids, upper back and lats — with every stroke.
Allyn Condon, a former Olympic sprinter who is now a fitness coach with The Gym Group, says it’s time the unsung hero of the gym was given the respect it deserves. “In my opinion, the indoor rower is the most efficient bit of kit to help people achieve fitness results,” he says.
With such glowing recommendation, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a wave of hip rowing-specific studios similar to those that have been taking New York by storm. Classes are launching at chains such as Gym Box, Bannatyne health clubs and Virgin Active, and at boutique gyms such as Metabolic London, which runs a Meta-Row class. British Rowing is trialling its own version with 20 and 45-minute classes developed by top coaches to be rolled out nationally by the end of the summer.
It helps that the hard-bodied Hollywood set love rowing — Jason Statham and Zac Efron are among its fans — and the CrossFit founder, Greg Glassman, named the rower as the ultimate item of gym kit. But there’s no better advert for rowing than rowers themselves. It was the London 2012 Olympics that proved the real turning point for the sport and while we watched as British rowers swept up medals, it was their impossibly perfect bodies squeezed into the most unforgiving Lycra that had us transfixed. How could we not be swayed into thinking this activity might be a good idea?
Condon says that many of his clients are still initially likely to choose the treadmill or stationary bike as their preferred pieces of cardiovascular equipment, but he convinces them that “the rower does it all”. By that, he is referring to the unrivalled ability of the machine to work upper and lower body, engaging more than 85 per cent of muscles and providing superlative fat-burning.
Matt Roberts, the personal trainer, says that nothing else comes close. “Using the MET rate [a measure of exercise intensity], we can compare activities directly,” he says. “And it shows that rowing burns at 12-14 METs, whereas running is about 8-12 and cycling 6-10.” A steady pace of 5mph on an erg, as the static rowing machine is called, offers the same calorie burn as running at 6.7mph.
It is estimated that 1.3 million people use an indoor rowing machine regularly. The British Rowing Indoor Championships, which is open to anyone, held at the Lee Valley VeloPark in east London, attracted 3,000 entries in the junior event alone. Sales and rentals (most companies operate a loan system) of indoor rowing machines are also at a high, helped by the fact that they are no longer as cumbersome — or ugly — as early models. These days you can expect polished chrome and even the gentle whoosh of water as you row in your living room. Brands such as the bestselling Concept 2 have made many of their machines in foldaway versions for home use. The WaterRower uses a flywheel in a circular tank of water to simulate the resistance of rowing. “Handcrafted from solid American black walnut”, it costs £1,149 and is attractive enough to leave on display.
Even real rowing — the kind involving a river or lake — is on the rise. Statistics from Sport England’s Active Lives survey, published this year, revealed that participation in the sport has grown by 6 per cent — and by a whopping 50 per cent among women — since 2012 and that nearly 183,000 people now row outdoors at least once a month. There are almost 600 rowing clubs in the UK, most with beginner programmes for all age groups.
Making the stroke longer and slower is far more effective
Andy Parkinson, the chief executive of British Rowing, says the turnaround is partly due to a seismic shift in attitude within rowing circles. For decades, the sport struggled to shake off its reputation as stuffy and stiflingly middle-class, the straw boater brigade sniffily dismissing the fitness industry’s love of indoor rowing machines as a watered-down departure. “We started to think differently, that indoor rowing should perhaps be seen as a sector of the sport in its own right and might be a stepping stone to wider involvement,” Parkinson says. “It took a massive shift in mentality, but we began to work with the gym industry and to embrace their big investment in indoor rowing. Now we provide the expertise, they provide the opportunity and it’s paying off.”
It has not been an entirely easy sell. One of the drawbacks of rowing is that it’s difficult to distract yourself from the pain — it’s pointless wearing headphones as it’s almost impossible to row to a beat. And, as a movement form, rowing isn’t intuitive — common mistakes include raising the legs prematurely, focusing too heavily on the arm pull and arching the back too much. Without good technique you are asking for niggles and injuries in the long term. “It’s imperative that you focus on technique to ensure you get the fundamentals right in the early stages,” Condon says. “Making the stroke longer and slower is far more effective than pulling too hard and fast. It’s better to be precise and efficient. The whole stroke should blend as a continuous flow.”
Parkinson says he was once a classic example of the mid-forties male who would get on an indoor rower and set off at top speed only to collapse exhausted within minutes. “Rowing is an activity that quickly loses its appeal if you don’t do it properly,” he says. “I’ve done it myself and realised you need to learn how best to use the equipment. When you do it properly, it becomes far more appealing very quickly.”
British Rowing has plenty of inspirational tools to ensure people stick with the trend, from an app that provides daily workouts to free technical videos and training plans on its website. However, the biggest motivator has to be the changes you will see in the mirror. Do it regularly and you won’t look back.